Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.
~Mark Twain

Decision fatigue. That mental chisel which chips away at rational choice. The brain strain that afflicts both rich and poor, those slogging through work’s quagmire, agonizing at the mall or mired down at home. Different from what is typically perceived as physical fatigue, it takes an insidious toll on the brain. Researchers have noted that over time it depletes the mind’s energy, leading to erratic choices and dubious decisions. Faced with navigating a ceaseless influx of decisions upon decisions, many look for shortcuts and some begin to act impulsively while others resist change and do little. Even the mere act of resolving potential tradeoffs may prove cerebrally exhausting. Innovation and creativity often lag. Willpower wanes. Choosing threads, wheels, colors, fabrics, channels, deals, gadgets, abodes, mates and more…all can foster tired, vulnerable minds which is the paralytic price paid for our dizzying overabundance of options. Well, with the exception of partners which usually presents either arid or florid choices.

The human brain is a remarkably pliant organ, but it is not without limits. Much like a muscle, when it becomes depleted, the brain loses efficiency. But, unlike other body parts, the brain usually fails to appreciate when an onslaught of decisions renders it fatigued. As with depression and other mental disorders, the very organ that is supposed to protect against harm is the same organ which is disabled. The often unrecognized tired mind struggles to ascertain what to retain and what to disregard, often failing at both, and then rueful choices follow.

Decision fatigue even plagues home cooks pondering a simple meal. Such an array of options. What sounds most appealing? What to buy or what is even available at the markets? Should the meal be lavish or frugal? Are there compromises to consider? What app(s), entrée and sides should be served? What types of prep are most apt given the basic menu and timing issues? Whose palate must be placated? How should the meal be plated? Should any of the meal be served in courses or at once? What should be served to drink? Which wines pair better? Shall there be dessert, and if so, what? How should the table be set and the meal presented? What otherwise seems a banal task of serving food can be rife with uncertainty and tiresome indecision. Perhaps this is why many have a short list of favored meals.

Acute and chronic stress levels are reaching blight proportions. Not only does prolonged stress raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, increase the risks of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease, it makes you one unpalatable mate. Researchers have even learned that chronic stressors can rewire the brain in ways that promote its presence. These sinister changes in the neural circuitry affect the regions of the brain associated with decisions and behavior. You tend to fall back on rote routine and eventually settle into bad habits. Executive decision-making skills are hampered.

Fortunately, stress induced changes to the brain are reversible, and pharmaceuticals are often not the answer. Solace can be found in the kitchen. Once embraced, cooking offers a change of pace and venue, soothing the angst and perturbations of the daily rut. Jangled nerves can be soothed. On a most basic level, it provides a creative outlet where raw, solitary ingredients are transformed into an amalgamation of scents, flavors, textures and hues. While stress numbs the senses, cooking activivates them. The cooking process has an almost measured field of action, a mission with a defined goal, and a finish with sensuous contentment.

Below is an embarassingly easy salad, soup, and sandwich trio to add to your decision tree. Relax, unwind, create and then savor. To narrow the matrices for the indecisive, the core ingredients remain fairly constant—fennel and fungi fervor with bright, fragrant tones of anise, sometimes citrus, and an underlying earthiness.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SALAD WTH CITRUS-CHAMPAGNE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 C fine champagne vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 t honey
1/2 shallot, peeled and minced
Zest of 1 large or 2 small oranges
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 C extra virgin olive oil

1 fennel bulb
8 ounces crimini mushrooms, thinly sliced

Parmigiano reggiano, thinly sliced into curls

In a bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, honey, shallot, orange zest, salt and pepper. While whisking constantly, slowly drizzle in the oil in a narrow, steady stream until it emulsifies. Set aside.

Cut off the stalks slicing close to the top of the bulb so as to remove the fingers. Then, peel any stringy fibers off the outer layer of the bulb with a sharp paring knife. If the bulb is bruised or seems very tough, remove the outer layer altogether. The very bottom of the bulb may be tough and slightly dirty in comparison to the greenish-tinged whiteness of the bulb itself, so thinly slice or shave it off with a knife.

Slice the bulb very thinly into rings. Add mushroom slices and gently toss with a light coating of the champagne-orange vinaigrette. Sparsely finish with a few parmigiano reggiano curls.

FENNEL & MUSHROOM SOUP

4 T unsalted butter
1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and chopped
1 t fennel seeds, toasted and ground
8 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, crushed

4 C mushroom, vegetable or chicken stock
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade
1/2 C heavy whipping cream

Fresh tarragon leaves, cut into chiffonade

In a large, heavy skillet, melt the butter until hot and foaming, but not browning. Add the fennel and toasted fennel seeds, then sauté over moderate until just softened, about 5 minutes. Then, add the mushrooms, and sauté until softened. Add the garlic, and cook for another couple of minutes.

Pour in the stock, season with salt and pepper, turn to high until it just reaches a soft boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Pour into a blender or food processor fitted with a metal blade and purée in pulses until smooth.

Pour the puréed soup into a large heavy saucepan, add the cream, and gently reheat without boiling. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to your liking. Ladle into shallow soup bowls and strew with tarragon ribbons.

FENNEL, MUSHROOM & PROSCUITTO PANINI

1 fennel bulb, trimmed (see above) and thinly sliced, almost shaved
4 oz crimini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
4 oz proscuitto, very thinly sliced
4 oz taleggio or fontina cheese, sliced

Artisan bread, such as Ciabetta or baguette, sliced
Extra virgin olive oil

Brush the outside of the each piece of bread with olive oil. Fill sparingly with fennel, mushrooms, proscuitto and top with some taleggio. The bread should be the star.

If you do not possess a panini grill, heat a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight(s) on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. It should be cooked to golden brown with pronounced grill marks and the insides pressed narrowly with slightly oozing cheese.

Pourboire: foods known to reduce stress include asparagus, avocado, berries, beef, cottage cheese, fish, milk, nuts, oranges, pasta, rice, whole grain breakfast cereals and breads, raw vegetables, cooked spinach, tea, and dark chocolate. Some foods are chocked with magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, B-6 and B-12 while others increase magnesium, folic acid, calcium and serotonin levels. These foods also counteract cortisol & epinephrine, the so-called “stress hormones” secreted by the adrenal glands.

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